Thoughts on being a Third Culture Kid: Grief and Loss

by mendibpng


(above) My family, just before our first furlough. I am on the far left, Missy is in the middle, and Jenny on the right. My parents, George and Anne, served in Indonesia for over 25 years. It is rare these days that the five of us (and our families) are all in one place…the last time was 2008!

Being a TCK means that you spend your childhood saying “good bye” to friends and loved ones. I’ve already mentioned that relationships are important and this was true for me as a child, and it’s true for my kids. In a mission community, every year a good portion of your friends leave for furlough. Some leave ‘finish,’ as we say here, or “for good.”  Not only do you or your friends leave, but sometimes when you come back, your closest friends may have replaced you and you have to find your ‘place’ all over again. Ben adds, “or you may have changed in the intervening years (even if you have only been gone for a year, your best friends may take their furlough years in a different year), and your needs for friendship may be different.” We want our kids feel free to mourn the loss of their loved ones. Ben and I have talked a lot about emotions since we first met 17 years ago, particularly because we sense that a healthy expression of grief makes it easier to cope with it.

I still struggle in this area because of the learned behavior [denying my emotions and conforming to institutional expectations] helped me cope with years of boarding school. Back in those days, I could swallow any “goodbye” with a happy face and save the grieving for a solitary place. I am still very private about grief, but I’ve worked on letting my kids in on it sometimes so that they know there’s no shame in feeling sad. It’s not a ‘wallowing’ kind of grief, just acknowledging it and moving on.

I remember when we were on our first furlough and my parents visited us in Dallas where Ben was completing his M.A. in linguistics. They visited for a few weeks, and when it was time to go, one of my children ran away and hid. At a really young age, he knew that it was painful to say good-bye, and in his little way he tried to protect himself from it. I remember that one of us came up with the idea of singing a goodbye song in Tok Pisin, which we often sing at church while we shake everybody’s hands.

Sek han I go, (Go shake hands)
Sek han I kam (Come let’s shake hands)
Smail wantaim na amamas (smile together and be happy)
laikim narapela olsem laikim yu yet (love another like you love yourself)
dispela em I pasin b’long God (this is the way of God)

Our son peeked around the corner that day and joined us to sing the good-bye song and shake hands. I don’t think that he was old enough at the time to acknowledge verbally what was going on, but singing that familiar song gave him the chance to have a little closure.

Now that our three oldest are bigger, they have [some of] the verbal skills to talk about their grief and we walk through it together. There’s no easy fix, by the way, no set formula to helping your kid deal with the pain (I wish there was!) and everybody experiences it in his or her own way.

It’s interesting to go through it now as an adult, because I have an inkling of what my parents went through, leaving their parents and siblings behind in the U.S., knowing that they would miss out on first words, first steps, etc., for their grandchildren. I really miss being able to look over the heads of my children at one of my parents (or Ben’s) and smile at an antic or at something one of them said. I feel it acutely when my kids are small and doing so many cute things.

I wish I could say. “I have all the answers,” but even now, after all of these years of dealing with grief and loss, I can only say that it doesn’t get any easier. I think the difference is, I know where to go for help, and I believe it’s worth the pain of separation to have loved ones.

I love how Henri Nouwen puts it…

Do not hesitate to love and to love deeply. You might be afraid of the pain that deep love can cause.  and

The more you have loved and have allowed yourself to suffer because of your love, the more you will be able to let your heart grow wider and deeper. When your heart is truly giving and receiving, those whom you love will not depart from your heart, even when they depart from you.” (The Inner Voice of Love)

For articles which specifically talk about TCKs and dealing with many issues, including separation, I would recommend the book
“Raising Resilient MK’s,” by Joyce M. Bowers and Robertson McQuilkin.


6 Comments to “Thoughts on being a Third Culture Kid: Grief and Loss”

  1. That’s powerful. I spent only 3 years overseas while my parents were STA’s with Wycliffe. But still…I experienced what you did. I remember crying my eyes out when dear friends left “for good”…and some of them were from other countries so I’ve literally never seen or talked with them since they left. It was heart rending. An additional struggle was that when we got back to the US, permanently, I was 11 and we moved into a new town where everyone had known one another since kindergarten. I NEVER completely fit in but the first couple of years were the worst. I do have trauma associated with it though the Lord has walked me through most of it. I am aware that my passionate desire to homeschool our children is connected, in part, with the pain of my public school junior high and high school experience.

    • Thank you Laraba for sharing your story too. Any significant time overseas does have the ability to impact someone…and it sounds like the transition for you was really painful, so sorry to hear that. Did you have anyone to help you, or were you on your own walking through it? I am really glad that you have walked through it with the Lord’s help…I have found that I feel His presence the most in the darkest hours!!

  2. No matter how much we process through our pain, no matter how well we deal with it, new loss will always cause new pain. Cut me, I bleed. Every. Single. Time. I love what you’re writing! Love love love love love! You make me want to be brave.

    • Kay, thanks, I am not sure where I would be right now if it weren’t for your encouraging words. So true about “cut me, I bleed.” It is a new sensation to move from denial to reality!! So here’s my question: if a new loss causes new pain, will it be intensified if there is still unresolved pain that hasn’t been dealt with yet?

  3. Thank you for honestly sharing this article. I think it is great how you are trying to consciously help your children express their emotions. Being an MK myself, I think that would have helped so much.

    • Cindy, thank you for commenting! Yes, it helps for them to express their emotions, but as they get older I feel like I’m heading into uncharted waters…I would appreciate any advice other MKs or parents of MKs would have for the teenage years especially!

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